Chen Yansheng, president of RCD Espanyol de Barcelona: “The football market in China is going to be enormous”

Since joining RCD Espanyol de Barcelona in January 2016, Chen Yansheng has worked tirelessly to strengthen and grow the ‘Blanquiazules’, with a particular focus on expanding into the Chinese market. Speaking with LaLiga, he discusses his three years in the role, how he plans to increase internationalisation and his commitment to learning from other clubs to achieve mutual success.

RCD Espanyol de Barcelona has enjoyed a productive few years on and off the pitch. Since the takeover by China-based Rastar Group at the end of 2015, the club has announced new initiatives and partnerships, as well as on-field stability with consistent mid-table finishes in LaLiga Santander.

For Chen Yansheng, the man who led the takeover, success on the pitch will always be his measure for success and is what drives him forward. Looking back on his first three years at the club, he remarks: “The greatest achievement has been to see our fans cheering when the team wins on the pitch. More than anything, that is what gives me the greatest sense of accomplishment.”

The president remains ambitious about improving league results and is not fazed by the ever-increasing quality of the team’s opponents. “The competition among clubs is getting more and more intense” he says, “But I choose to see it as an opportunity for us to grow.”

This response shows Yansheng’s open-minded spirit of collaboration. Rather than be intimidated by the performance of rival clubs, he sees it as an opportunity to learn, and has spent the last three years visiting LaLiga clubs to share and accumulate knowledge. “Just yesterday I visited Villarreal, who have an economic approach to club management that is certainly worth learning”, he notes. “There are many ways that we can optimise our own models by learning from clubs like Valencia, Real Madrid and Barcelona. I want to make sure that our own concepts can also be shared with other clubs, too.”

One area where Yansheng can offer clear expertise is in the Chinese market, where he built the Rastar Group into a well-known name. Many European clubs are working hard to create a foothold in China and enhance their brand here. Creating a long-term plan to break into the market involves many elements but for Yansheng, a logical first step for football clubs is to look at their playing squad. “I think a lot depends on players, either from the first team or youth sides. To begin with, I think hiring Chinese playing talent is the best way to enter this market” he says.

Like many clubs, growth in China remains a central part of Espanyol’s long-term plan, and a series of initiatives are already well underway to continue growth. The club is keen to note that these activities are not just designed to help the club, but the sport as a whole.

Mao Ye Wu, Director of Business Coordination at RCD Espanyol de Barcelona, explains: “Our idea for growth in the Chinese market is not only about the performance of the first team, we are also building relationships to improve training, technical and medical services. We want to be a reference club for Chinese football, and a club that can contribute to the development of Chinese football. For this reason we are establishing relations at many levels within Chinese football, including institutions, federations, clubs and academies.”

These relationships will be of huge value as the Chinese government continues to support the development of football and its clubs. Chinese clubs are being particularly encouraged to increase development on grassroots initiatives, an area in which Espanyol has already become a household name. “A lot of requests for collaboration are coming our way, and we are offering a range of services in our sports city and exporting these through our academies,“ notes Mao Ye Wu. “In 2018 we opened our first academy in China, and we are now working to establish a first-class approach to player training and management, allowing it to grow.”

Significant goals remain, including the development of a stronger brand and a loyal fan following, in a country where Mao Ye Wu concedes the majority of football fans “are mainly followers of Barcelona and Real Madrid.” The club continues to partner with LaLiga to discuss new ways to create a bigger profile for the club and Spanish football as a whole, with “a lot of large projects planned for the near future.”

Given the growing population of knowledgeable football fans in China, and its ever-more competitive league, the time for action is now. Yansheng is wasting no time in doing just that. “The popularity of football in China started relatively late,” he admits, “But with the full development of its infrastructure, the football market in China is going to be enormous. There are quite a few followers of Espanyol (in China) but I think there is still lots of space to expand.”

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